Shaping the invisible

What's in a Name?

Mark WigglesworthFri 13th August 2010

Maestro, Dirigent, Le Chef – Mark Wigglesworth launches his Gramophone blog by pondering the different terms for 'conductor'

I'm called many names when I work – and that's only counting the things said to my face!

Despite seeming old fashioned, the commonest is still 'Maestro'. Personally I don't think it should be used for conductors under 80, but what's interesting is that when I ask people not to use it, they seem slightly disappointed and rather at a loss for an alternative. Plenty of people would prefer not to use my actual name, either because they don't feel they know me well enough to use 'Mark', don't quite trust themselves to pronounce 'Wigglesworth', or would actually like to keep a certain distance from the person they see as their boss. I remember asking an orchestra once not to call me 'Maestro', only for the next question to be pointedly preceded by such a title. The point was being made in no uncertain terms that not only did I have no right to tell them what to call me but also that they had no interest in engaging in me as a real person and would prefer to keep their distance however they could.

In Germany, it is 'Dirigent', or director. That's OK, except that it makes you feel a bit like you're directing traffic. Maybe that's how some see the job, but I'd like to think it was more creative than that. It doesn't help when the preposition attached is usually the word 'under'. To play 'under' somebody sounds a bit down-trodden to me.

In France you are 'Le Chef'. Appropriately so in such a gastronomic country and in many ways, the cooking analogy is rather good. You decide the menu, work out the ingredients, add the flavours, and choose the temperature. Your face rarely gets seen by the public, and if you don't like the heat you shouldn't be in the kitchen. In a literal sense the Japanese call conducting 'Finger Managing' but I imagine that the dignity with which they view the profession is rather lost in translation.

My favourite is the English word 'Conductor'. I like it because its definitions go to the heart of what the profession is. In physics, a conductor is a material that transmits heat, electricity, or sound, and in a concert, hopefully that's exactly what you do. Derived from Latin, meaning to 'lead with', or 'bring together', it also sums up both the challenges and the privileges of the job. Leading people along is one thing, but when you need to do it 'with' them, it's not quite so straightforward. Some see that as a contradiction and think a leader needs to be out in front giving commands. That may be true in a marching band, but when a performance needs as much individuality as it does discipline, the players should feel as free as soloists and as trusted as chamber musicians. If you can enable that in them without shirking your responsibilities as the fundamental decision maker, then you're really 'leading with'; then you're really a 'Conductor'.

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